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Polybius: the First Punic War

Map of ancient Sicily. Map design Jona Lendering. According to the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118), the First Punic War (264-241) between Carthage and Rome was "the longest and most severely contested war in history". And indeed, it lasted almost a quarter of a century and probably, a million people lost their lives. In the end, Rome had conquered the island of Sicily, and had become a Mediterranean superpower.

Polybius' World History was translated by W.R. Paton.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Polybius. Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Polybius; cast from a lost monument in Cleitor (Greece) (Museo nazionale della civiltÓ romana, Rome) 

Book 1, chapter 17

[263 BCE] When the terms of the treaty were referred to Rome, and when the people had accepted and ratified this agreement with Hiero, the Romans decided not to continue to employ all their forces in the expedition, but only two legions, thinking on the one hand that, now the king had joined them, the war had become a lighter task and calculating that their forces would be better off for supplies.

The Carthaginians, on the contrary, when they saw that Hiero had become their enemy, and that the Romans were becoming more deeply involved in the enterprise in Sicily, considered that they themselves required stronger forces in order to be able to confront their enemies and control Sicilian affairs. They therefore enlisted foreign mercenaries from the opposite coasts, many of them Ligurians, Celts, and still more Iberians, and dispatched them all to Sicily. Perceiving that the city of Acragas had the greatest natural advantages for making their preparations, it being also the most important city in their province, they collected their troops and supplies there and decided to use it as a base in the war.

Meanwhile the Roman consuls who had made the treaty with Hiero had left, [262 BCE] and their successors, Lucius Postumius [Megellus] and Quintus Mamilius [Vitulus], had arrived in Sicily with their legions. On taking note of the plan of the Carthaginians, and their activity at Acragas, they decided on a bolder initiative. Abandoning therefore other operations they brought all their forces to bear on Acragas itself, and encamping at a distance of 1400 meters from the city, shut the Carthaginians up within the walls.

It was the height of the harvest, and as a long siege was foreseen, the soldiers began gathering grain with more venturesomeness than was advisable. The Carthaginians, observing that the enemy were dispersed about the country, made a sortie and attacked the foragers. Having easily put these to flight, some of them pressed on to plunder the fortified camp while others advanced on the covering force.

But on this occasion and often on previous ones it is the excellence of their institutions which has saved the situation for the Romans; for with them death is the penalty incurred by a man who deserts the post or takes flight in any way from such a supporting force. Therefore on this occasion as on others they gallantly faced opposites who largely outnumbered them, and, though they suffered heavy loss, killed still more of the enemy. Finally surrounding them as they were on the point of tearing up the palisade, they dispatched some on the spot and pressing hard on the rest pursued them with slaughter to the city.


to book 1, chapter 18

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